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We used to revere turkeys, not eat them

Not long ago, archaeologists excavating a thousand-year-old Native American village near Dove Creek, Colorado, found a mass grave of turkeys, containing the remains of more than 50 birds, young and old. This wasn’t a cache of bones leftover from turkey dinners. Instead, the carcasses had been carefully arranged within a circle of stones and buried in the floor of a small structure.

Archaeologists say the ceremonial burial, found in 2012, is a striking reminder of a time when many North Americans valued the turkey as a sacred being, not a special holiday meal.

“Turkeys were rather revered animals” among people who lived in the Four Corners region of the U.S. Southwest about 700 to 2000 years ago, says archaeologist William Lipe of Washington State University, Pullman (WSU). “Their feathers were highly valued for blankets and other uses, and [the birds] played an important role in ritual practice.”

Archaeologists have found numerous ceremonial arrangements of whole turkeys, along with other animals, at sites in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Many sites date back to the so-called Basketmaker II and III eras, from a few centuries before 1 C.E. to 750 C.E., and the early Pueblo period, from about 750 to the 1500s. At times, it appears the birds were used in ceremonies for abandoning kivas, important ceremonial structures. Others were carefully interred under ceremonial plazas. And the inclusion of young turkeys, which are born in the spring, suggests some burials were linked to fertility rites, perhaps tied to the planting of crops.

While cherishing the birds, these early Americans appeared to have had little taste for their flesh. Before about 1050, few turkey bones show signs of butchering, and turkey remains don’t appear much in trash piles holding other food waste (although there are signs that residents at some point ate turkey eggs). “For a long time, it looks like people really don’t want to eat these birds … they are too important for other purposes,” says archaeologist R. Kyle Bocinsky of WSU.

Not only did early Puebloans pass up a rich source of protein, but it appears they even gave the birds some of their hard-won corn harvests. Studies of carbon isotopes in excavated turkey bones show that many birds were likely fed primarily with maize from nearby farm fields. That means “it cost a lot to keep turkeys … we’re talking a big caloric expense” at a time when food supplies could be shaky, Bocinsky says. Just three adult turkeys would have eaten as much corn as a person in a year, a team led by Lipe and Bocinsky estimate in a paper now in press at American Antiquity.

At some point, however, Puebloans began eating the sacred birds, and researchers are trying to understand why. One answer may be that they had largely depleted other sources of meat, especially deer. At some archaeological sites, turkey bones begin to appear in food waste just as the remains of other animals begin to disappear. But cultural changes likely also played a role, as contacts between various groups led to the spread of new ideas and practices. And violent conflict may have had an influence, too, by making it too dangerous for hunters to make long expeditions for game. Whatever the reasons, Bocinsky says, “in the mid-1000s, there’s a pretty dramatic shift from it being almost taboo to eat a turkey, to the wholesale raising and eating of birds.”

Still, the turkey never lost its spiritual significance in Puebloan societies, scholars note. To this day, the bird carries symbolic value among tribes linked to those early Native Americans, and turkey feathers remain important in many ritual practices.

Researchers also note that anyone who enjoys a Thanksgiving turkey should give thanks to the early Native Americans who helped create the plump, juicy birds that rest on our tables today. Nearly two millenia ago, people living in what is now Mexico and the U.S. Southwest were the first to domesticate turkeys. Spanish explorers then exported Mexican turkeys to Europe. There, farmers developed even fatter domestic breeds, which were then carried back to North America—ultimately leading to the turkeys that now are a mainstay of our annual harvest feast.

Updated, 25 November 2015, 2:00 p.m.: This item has been updated to clarify some archeological dates, and the Mexican origins of domestic turkeys.